Lovecraft Country Puts a Timely Spin on the Horrors of Jim Crow

By Dewayne Bingham, Assistant Features Editor–

The pilot episode of HBO’s new horror drama series Lovecraft Country reminds us that white supremacy, institutional racism and police brutality are far more bone chilling and viscerally terrifying than the most bloodthirsty fictional monsters.

Produced by Misha Green, Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, Lovecraft Country was adapted for television from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same title. Like the novel, the HBO series is inspired by the pulp fiction of renowned author and not-so-closeted racist H.P. Lovecraft.

However, whereas in many of Lovecraft’s stories Black characters are portrayed as monsters, Lovecraft Country places its well-developed Black protagonists in the roles of brave heroes.

The pilot follows Korean War veteran Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) across dirt roads in segregated towns, bridges named for long-dead slaveowners, and just beyond the grasp of murderous, nocturnal creatures akin to Lovecraft’s shoggoth, all to find his missing father in Ardham, Massachusetts. Before traveling into New England, Atticus returns home to Chicago and enlists the help of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and a high school friend, struggling photojournalist Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). 

Tension and suspense build as the three venture from a spirited Black community where they are celebrated to areas of small-town America that grow increasingly unwelcoming. They are taunted, assaulted with slurs and denied service. They are chased and shot at by law enforcement. They are constantly forced to question whether they are in danger because of the color of their skin, whether they might be in the wrong place at the wrong time—a fear that, unfortunately, people of color still wrestle with decades after desegregation.

The suspense boils over in one of the final scenes of the pilot, when a shotgun wielding sheriff approaches Atticus, George and Letitia. He explains that they are in a “sundown county,” a relic of the Jim Crow Era from which Black people were prohibited after dark. The sheriff threatens to lynch them if they are not across the county line before sunset, which is minutes away. They scramble into the car and Atticus races the sunset, mindful to stay under the speed limit so the sheriff could not pull them over. The sheriff follows closely and quickly, tapping their bumper several times with his cruiser. He does everything in his power to catch Atticus making a mistake. They make it across the county line with barely any daylight to spare, and yet they are still detained and accused of robbery crimes they had no hand in.

Aside from being among the most nail-biting scenes in television history, this scene offers an eerie allusion to the flawed American justice system, past and present. It’s a chilling example of how unjustly written laws and petty crimes are used to criminalize and often brutalize people of color. 

Take the May 23 arrest and brutalization of Reginald Arrington Jr. for example. Arrington was detained in Chattanooga for a pedestrian law violation and then beaten with batons by three deputies while one held him on the ground. He was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting police officers, among other charges, and then contracted COVID-19 at the Silverdale Detention Center. Arrington suffered greatly because of a petty foot-traffic violation and abuse of power.

The American justice system will not have completely abandoned its Jim Crow roots until there are better systems of accountability in place to prevent officers from using petty crimes to criminalize and brutalize people of color, fabricating stories and tampering with evidence. This starts with punishing officers for failing to utilize body cams, ending qualified immunity and creating external boards of review for complaints regarding officer conduct.

Until we reach a point where policing in the United States looks drastically different, being followed or confronted by an officer will be far more horrifying for many Americans than anything Lovecraft could imagine.

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